This is the great conundrum of the regional wine business. The best way for local wineries to market their product is to proclaim its local-ness. But, given the way the wine business works, their wine may not be made with local grapes, but with grapes or juice imported from California or even Europe. Confused? It gets worse. Federal law allows wineries to be appropriately vague about whether the wine is made with local grapes.
All in all, regional wine labeling is a maze that consumers (many of whom aren't sure how to read a wine label to begin with) don't know they have to negotiate. After the jump -- how labeling laws work, what to look for on a regional wine label, and why so many wineries take advantage of this gray area.
The key term here is appellation, which is the technical word for the region where the grapes in a wine are grown. An appellation can be a country, a state, a county or a geographic region like Napa Valley. This is where the confusion begins (I'm using Texas as an example, but the law holds for any state):
• If a wine is made with 75 percent or more grapes grown in Texas, it can be labeled as Texas wine. The word Texas will appear toward the bottom of the front label; if it's not there, more than 25 percent of the grapes came from elsewhere.
• If the Texas-grown grapes in the wine are less than 75 percent but more than 25 percent, the winery can label it as American or For Sale in Texas Only. Look for the word American toward the bottom of the front label. If the front label doesn't say American or Texas, look on the back label. You should see a line of tiny print that says For Sale in Texas Only.
• If the Texas-grown grapes in the wine are less than 25 percent, it must be labeled as American. The word American will appear toward the bottom of the front label.
When it comes to figuring out where the grapes in the wine were grown, these are the only rules that count. It doesn't matter if there is a cowboy or a bucking bronco on the label. It doesn't matter if, at the top of the front label, the winery identifies itself as being in Texas. If it doesn't say Texas toward the bottom of the front label, the grapes weren't grown in Texas.
I can hear the questions now. "But the winery is in my state. Why wouldn't they use local grapes?"
Several reasons. First, there may not be enough grapes grown in the state, which happens all too often in the regional wine business. In most regional states, the demand for grapes out paces the supply. In Texas, we have about 220 wineries, but only about 3,500 acres of grapes. There's no way, and especially when there's a bad harvest, that there will be enough grapes to go around. So wineries will buy grapes or juice from other places -- mostly California, but also Washington state and Europe.
Second, wineries want to make wine from grapes that aren't grown or don't grow well in their state. Consumers want to buy wine they know, like chardonnay. So wineries, in order to make wine consumers want, buy grapes or juice from out of state.
The second point is the contentious one. Few people will quibble if a winery has to buy out-of-state grapes to make up for a poor harvest. But why make wine with out-of-state grapes otherwise? Because, say the wineries that do it, consumers won't buy wine from a regional winery unless it says chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot on the label -- and that if they have to buy grapes from California to make those wines, so be it. Otherwise, there would be no wine industry in that state.
Which may be true, though I would argue that the short-term benefits don't outweigh the long-term harm. What's the point of a local wine industry that makes California wine? The most successful wine regions, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, have their own identity, their own terroir. Napa Valley isn't world-famous because its wines taste like they're from Bordeaux, but for the exact opposite reason.
Which is where For Sale in [Pick Your State] Only comes in. It's not necessarily a bad thing. But too often, it's used as a wink and a nod to allow consumers to assume that the wine they're drinking is local when it isn't. When we do DrinkLocalWine.com, the wines we use must be made with local grapes. And that has irritated more than one winery; their argument has almost always been: "What the consumer doesn't know won't hurt them."
Which isn't true. And the regional wine business, for all of its promise, isn't going to be successful with that approach.
The photo is from rleathers of the United States, via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license